I sat at the intersection waiting for the red light to turn green. I thought to myself that if it turns green by the time I count to three, then I’ll do it. I counted; one, two, three…. the light remained red and I began to tear up, how could I have gotten to a place where this seemed to be my only choice of salvage? Shame and disappointment streamed down my face, then the light turned green and I started to drive. I was physically behind the wheel but by no means was I mentally present. My intention to crash the car was not to die, not at all, that would be a sin and besides, I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to be removed from life for a few months so that I never had to explain what had happened, to anyone. As a nineteen year old Muslim girl, choices seemed slim and that appeared to be the only choice that didn’t place me a dishonorable position.
My family dynamics were strongly rooted in the Islamic faith. It dictated the way we thought and behaved on a daily basis. I had no knowledge or awareness about sexual health; I gathered information through context clues on television, books, and peer conversations at school. I remember feeling shameful for my curiosity, but at the same time was fascinated by the concept of connecting with someone through your body. From my peers, I gathered that sexuality was not a safe topic to discuss without being severely judged. I formed the core belief that speaking about sex was improper, immodest, and sinful; therefore, acting on anything of the sort prior to marriage was something I could not comprehend.
It was not until I was nineteen years old that I met someone who discussed sexuality openly. I was a freshman and he was a fifth year senior at our college. Gradually, we became good friends; he was one of my first male friends which disrupted my understanding of boundaries. Another core belief of mine was the assumption that all Indian/Pakistani boys were ‘good guys’ and would protect me from harm. Throughout our friendship, there was an apparent power differential; I was a naïve, sheltered freshman and he was someone who was exposed to enough of the world to understand emotional maturity and interpersonal dynamics; both of which I had no foundation in.
As time went on, this boy took on more of a mentor role than one of a friend. He single handedly became the biggest influence in my life. As time went on, he gradually managed to slip in blame, shame, criticism, and name-calling into our interactions. He weaved truths and non-truths together. He constantly told me I was ugly, annoying, weak, and had ‘unattractive dark-skin tone’; the list went on and on. I started to believe him and began to overcompensate the ‘ugly’ me by taking on the ‘pleaser’ role. I began to suppress my intuition and follow a path of behaviors that would lead me to feel wanted and needed by others, especially him.
He would share jokes related to sex and because I had now taken on the ‘pleaser’ role, I would laugh, often without even understanding the meaning. He would invite me into discussing these topics and then label me a nympho for participating; again, mixed messages. One day he asked me a personal question related to masturbation, soon thereafter, those personal questions began to escalate and I distinctly remember something inside of me did not feel at ease. His questions turned into actions with me, and as much as my intuition was screaming, the sounds were muffled by the desire to be wanted. I did what he wanted to and I pretended to enjoy my time. If at any point he felt resistance from me, he would mention how I was ‘uncool’ and not the ‘exploratory’ type he thought I was. He would constantly belittle me before and afterwards say that no one would want me unless I was more sexually experienced. He said he was doing me a favor by teaching me.
I began to think I was falling in love with him; I began to believe that this was a healthy form of attachment because I had no model or comparison of what a healthy one looked like. I began to believe I would stick it out until he also loved me too; because in my mind I could not be touched by more than one man, it had to be him who I marry.
While this was going on, I would spend my days in bed either sleeping the guilt away or laying there for hours replaying my ‘sins’ from the night before in my head. I felt violated but I didn’t understand why because I had given consent; I chose to interact with him; therefore, it did not make sense for me to feel grossly exposed. I would challenge my intuition that was screaming ‘fear’ by thoughts of self-blame, telling myself I had a responsibility in this too. It made logical sense to me at that time. It didn’t occur to me why I kept going ‘voluntarily’ to his place. It didn’t occur to me that all the reasons I was doing what I was doing were far more than I could comprehend at that time and had nothing to do with my perceived consent.
I stopped going to classes in college due to being in bed most of the day. I would spend my days in bed, and nights either on campus with friends or with him. He would never let me spend the night at his place, so I would have to find somewhere to crash at 2am until the next morning when it was a reasonable time for me to go home as I lived with my parents. One night he had smoked weed and acted more forcefully; my pleasing laughs that night were much more panicky; never did I say no or stop. Therefore, I consented… right?
During our entire friendship, no one knew we were close friends. We hid our friendship; or I should say more like he hid our friendship and I followed his lead. He knew I would never tell anyone, for my own self-preservation and for his. He was fully confident that I would protect him and he was right. He had set the parameters such that there would be no accountability.
I started to drown; I started to become more recluse and withdrawn from my friends and family. Every minute of the waking day, I would re-play episodes of what happened in my head, a way to punish myself over and over again. The punitive notion instilled in me as a child told me I deserved this pain. Then I received a letter in the mail, it was the end of the Fall semester and the letter read I had failed out of school due to my substantially low GPA. As a South Asian daughter of immigrants who highly value education, this incident threw me over the edge. The letter read that after the Spring semester is complete, I could re-apply into the university. My head spun around in circles. What would I do for a whole semester? What would my parents think? What would we tell people? What would be any solid reason to be absent from school for an entire semester? …Which leads me back to being at that that traffic light, wondering if I should crash my car, wondering that if I was in the hospital for a few months then that would be a rational reason to tell everyone why I took a leave of absence.
For the first time, things began to appear more clearly about my relationship with this boy, or should I say man. There were so many contradictions that I began to question. How could someone that I go to the Mosque to pray Taraweeh with also be the same person that I felt violated with… and on the same night? How could someone who is perceived to be always right, also be wrong? I made a promise to myself and had all intentions of ending the friendship. I visited him once after that while I used my sister, unbeknownst to her, as my protection as she waited in the car. As soon as he heard my sister was outside waiting, he backed away from me, something I never had the voice to demand he do. I gathered any belongings I had left at his place and told him I would see him later. I didn’t know what later meant but all I knew was for the time being I would be unable to see him. I spent the entire Winter break in my bed or on my prayer rug; I repented for hours and hours every night. I would hold Sujud and just cry; my tears were so familiar to me by then that it seemed unnatural to go a day without them.
I eventually told my parents that my GPA was too low to return; disappointing my parents was a grief all on its own. My parents never asked questions about the reason behind my low grades, they assumed my lack of motivation in school was due to their own poor parenting and began to spiral down their own dysfunctional patterns of self-blame.
Soon thereafter, I was able to speak with each professor about raising my grades and by a miracle, I was able to change my GPA and continue on with the Spring semester. Although each professor did offer to change my grade which I am thankful for, they could tell something hurtful had happened to me; however, none of them asked or offered emotional assistance. The shame and non-intrusiveness attitudes reaffirmed to me that I was alone in this whole mess that I had indeed created for myself.
The next semester, I focused on myself, my grades, and God. However, while I tried my best to rely on my inner strength and God to lead me, the man who was once my mentor was out of my life but not out of my head. The man would email me frequently for years. I secretly felt important that he could not forget me. Even though the unhealthy behaviors had stopped, the unhealthy emotions remained present.
Life went on; and I met another man in my mid 20s and the pattern continued just in a different form; he would constantly belittle me, shame me, call me names and tell me repeatedly I was unattractive, yet I continued to date him. Patterns don’t just end; interventions are needed for change to occur in life.
The beginning of my intervention was when I went through a vigorous graduate program which focused heavily on self-awareness and growth and I finally began to understand healthy relational dynamics. I had a-ha moments about the men in my life and the unhealthy patterns of our relationships. I nurtured a loving and non-punitive relationship with God, understanding there is a significant flaw in dichotomous thinking. During this heightened self-awareness, I also had a small inclination that perhaps what happened to me when I was a freshman/sophomore in college was a form of abuse; however, I was fearful to process these thoughts with others. What if no one believed me? I mustered up the courage to go to a counselor and I told this woman something I had not told anyone in my life; that I believed I was abused and that my consent was not valid. My worst fear was confirmed; she did not believe me and asked if I was over exaggerating the event in my mind in order to punish him. I was devastated. It confirmed that indeed I had consented and I was to blame. I would never tell another soul.
One day I was in a seminar for domestic violence and the term sexual coercion came up. A very brief definition of sexual coercion was mentioned: a tactic used by perpetrators to intimidate, trick or force someone to have sex with him/her without physical force. I began to learn more about power and control, emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, minimizing denying and blaming, male privilege, and coercion. And yes, I finally understood, in my story, there was not consent. My inner self began to grow confident enough to disregard if anyone didn’t believe me because I believed me and that’s all that mattered.
I tried to discuss dynamics of power and control with close friends and extended family; however, most of them fired back, stating brushing my views off as “extreme feminism.” As a result, I suppressed my thoughts and refrained from sharing with close friends and family. I confided in myself and sadly, that was my reality.
Years went on and throughout more ups and downs and downs again, I started to learn what a healthy sexual relationship looked like and I started to be drawn to healthier people rather than toxic ones. I eventually met and married my husband in my mid 30s; the healthiest relationship I have had thus far. I told my husband what had happened in my life and without hesitation, he believed me; what a corrective emotional experience.
When I heard about HEART Women and Girls, I was in disbelief that there was an organization which addressed the same issues I feel passionate to educate the Muslim community about. The lack of sex education has hurt a staggering number of Muslim girls and women. In efforts to shield and protect our children, we are leaving them completely exposed for harm and abuse. It is for this reason that for the first time, I wanted to write down my experience. If you take anything away from this story, please know that there are people in the community who will believe you. There are people in the community to help you, and who are legally and ethically bound to so in a confidential way. You have a right to be educated and a right to be heard.
Once in a while when I find myself at that same traffic light, I take a deep breath in and remember that I am not just physically in the driver’s seat but I am also mentally and emotionally behind the wheel of my life. Now when the light turns green, I exhale a breath of gratitude and keep moving forward.